Dorset Theatre Festival Closes The 2022 Season in Triumph with Its Remarkable World Première of “Thirst”

 David Mason and Kathy McCafferty in THIRST at the Dorset Theatre Festival. Photos by Joey Moro

by Shelley A. Sackett

Arriving early for “Thirst,” playwright Ronán Noone’s dazzling new play, is a stroke of good ole Irish luck. A crisp sound system pumps toe-tapping traditional pub music, setting a jig-worthy mood. Functional period lamps bathe the livable kitchen set in warmth, creating a cozy tone for arguably the best theatrical experience of the 2022 summer season.

By the time the Irish lilted announcements herald the play’s start, the audience has been transported to another time and another place.

And what a time and place it is.

Noone sets “Thirst” in the kitchen of the Tyrone family’s seaside Connecticut home on the August day in 1912 when Eugene O’Neill’s classic tragedy, “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night” takes place. [Although familiarity with that play is not a prerequisite to “getting” ‘Thirst,’ Noone sprinkles his script with delicious breadcrumbs for those who have tasted the original to follow.]

While the Tyrones spend the day destroying themselves and each other offstage in their toile-wallpapered dining room, their cook, kitchen maid and chauffer spend theirs in the kitchen, sitting around the table together, enjoying their privacy and relative freedom while performing their demeaning menial duties. Their individual posts may have led them to this quasi-family-by-default situation, but they are genuine in their interactions. They bicker, they laugh, they tease and they worry. But they do it together, and it comes from their hearts. They genuinely need and enjoy each other’s company.

Each brings a different, but similar, back story to the mix.

Bridget Conroy emigrated from Ireland 16 years ago to become the Tyrone’s cook. Her outer shell is brittle and cynical, but she saves her harshest criticism and reproach for herself, especially for her closeted alcoholism. Yet, the only time she emerges from her carapace is when she’s juiced enough to black out the shame and regrets that poison her every sober breath and thought. Only then can she express — and admit to — the love and need she has for Jack.

Meg Hennessy, McCafferty

For his part, Jack Smythe, a local native and the Tyrone’s chauffeur, grew up poor in this place that is playground to the spoiled rich. He yearns to leave his hometown with its paper trail witnessing his past transgressions and finally, as he approaches middle age, set out to secure his independence and happiness.

Last, but hardly least, is the winsome new arrival, Cathleen Mullen, Bridget’s 18-year-old niece who miraculously survived her trip over on the ill-fated Titanic. She is feisty and blindly optimistic, determined to climb the golden ladder of American success.

These three flawed characters bring real troubles and equally real compassion to their shared  table. Bridget was banished from her home after giving birth at age 16; that birth is only thing she has done in her life that she’s proud of, in spite of its personal cost. Like the penitent sinner she believes herself to be, she dutifully sends money and a letter to her family every week. In 16 years, she has received not even a postcard in return. Although she loved the beach in Ireland, she won’t go to the sea just down the street, either because it makes her too homesick or because she must deny herself all pleasure as penance for her sin, or — most likely — both.

Jack was a drunk, so far gone he couldn’t face his wife’s illness and death and even missed her funeral, when Bridget found him in the street and, like a sick stray, took him home and nursed him back to physical and spiritual health. In return, Jack is determined to offer her the same life raft and save her from a life of self-pity and recrimination — a life he knows too well — not because he owes her, but because he loves her.

Cathleen’s bubble is burst when, shortly after arriving in America, she receives a letter from her fiancé announcing he is ditching her for a woman with property. She’s more annoyed and humiliated than heartbroken. Young, ambitious and resilient, she naively throws herself behind a ditzy plan to become the next “it” girl on Broadway.

These three have more in common than their woes, regrets and heartbreaks. They are survivors and they share a determination to live, no matter the consequences. They also really care about each other. Noone, with his well-tuned ear and light touch, pens robust yet sleek dialogue that tackles a lot of big ticket topics (shame, redemption, assimilation, discrimination to name a few) while staying grounded in the here and now of these three individuals and their intertwined daily lives.

By Ronán Noone Directed by Theresa Rebeck, Scenic Design: CHRISTOPHER & JUSTIN SWADER, Costume Design: FABIAN FIDEL AGUILAR, Lighting Design: MARY ELLEN STEBBINS, Sound Design: FITZ PATTON, Stage Manager: AVERY TRUNKO

Rebeck’s direction is economical, efficient and effective, and she lets each actor spread their wings and breathe life and individuality into their characters. They inhale, they exhale, they react, interact and bring each other lightness and laughter. Kathy McCafferty, as Bridget, is a whirling dervish of anger and productivity, and the kitchen is her made-to-order stage. She cooks (making real scrambled eggs over a real range), scrubs, arranges, rearranges and throws pots and pans, all while letting fly mouthfuls of rapid-fire heavily accented lines.

David Mason brings a lanky self confidence and Kevin Costner-esque genuineness to his Jack. He is a regular, decent guy who made a mistake, acknowledges it and just wants a shot at the brass ring with the girl of his dreams — nothing more, but nothing less.

Rounding out the trio is the lithesome and impossibly creamy-skinned (think yogurt, not heavy cream) Meg Hennessy as the vivacious Cathleen. She brings comic timing, physicality and a gift for facial mood changes that are as talented as they are entertaining.

If there is a flaw, it is that the women’s accented rapid-fire delivery is often muffled or lost, a shame (and annoyance) considering the richness of Noone’s craftmanship. A little microphone could go a long way.

That aside, there are too many positives to give them all justice. Mary Ellen Stebbins’ lighting paints the day’s passing with a sun shape shifting across the kitchen walls. Fitz Patton makes optimum use of a terrific sound system. And Christopher and Justin Swader’s set design, with its punctuating swinging back door, adds more than a mere scenic element — it is an escape route from all the Tyrone kitchen represents to a world of fresh air and fresh starts.

That door swings both ways. Jack and Bridget, after two plus hours, finally manage to cross over the threshold to the land of hope and promise. And Cathleen? Only time — and perhaps a sequel — will tell.

‘Thirst’ — Written by Ronán Noone. Directed by Theresa Rebeck; Scenic Design by Christopher and Justin Swader; Sound Design by Fitz Patton; Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins, Costume Design by Fabian Fidel Aguilar. Presented by Dorset Theatre Festival, Dorset, Vermont. The run has ended.

Gloucester Stage’s ‘Grand Horizons’ Asks, “After 50 Years of Marriage, What’s Love Got to Do with It?

Cast of Gloucester Stage’s ‘Grand Horizons’

by Shelley A. Sackett

Nancy and Bill (played by real life spouses and stellar actors Paula Plum and Richard Snee) are introduced in their cookie cutter split level house as they go about their chores preparing for dinner. Silently and robotically, they perform their choreographed rituals. Bill sets the table; Nancy dishes out the food. Is this a couple so in sync after so many years that they don’t need to talk or is each seething with rancor just below their calm demeanor?

Finally, Nancy speaks. “I think I would like a divorce,” she says matter-of-factly. “All right,” Bill responds.

With all the subtlety of a network TV sitcom, their thirty-something sons, Ben (Jeremy Belize) and Brian (Greg Maraio) burst through the front door of their Grand Horizons independent-living home, outraged and sputtering about their parents’ obligation to stay together for the sake of the kids, especially since they’re almost dead anyway. “You’re almost 80. How much else even is there?” asks the stereotypical and bossy first-born Ben. Brian, the self-absorbed, whiny, indulged “baby,” just wants the nest he grew up in and never really left to remain intact.

Paula Plum, Greg Maraio, Richard Snee

Nancy, a retired librarian, has other ideas. After a loveless marriage, she feels like time is running out. “I want to be seen, praised and appreciated,” she says. She also wants to change the role she plays with her sons from their caregiver to adult peer. “You have to hear this,” she tells a resistant Brian as she reveals details of her intimate life he would rather not hear. “I will be a full person to you.”

For his part, Bill just wants to tell a decent joke and to that end has enrolled in a comedy class at the recreation center. A grump with questionable timing, his future as a stand up comic is less than assured.

Paula Plum, Greg Maraio

The remainder of the two hour (including intermission) production examines what happens to this family when its foundation cracks. The sons rant, rave and pout in a cardboard two-dimensional orbit. Ben’s wife, Jess (Marissa Stewart), a caricature of a touchy-feely therapist, urges her in-laws, who were never physically close, to begin the healing by holding hands. The “kids” prefer their la-la land of denial to facing the mature realities and responsibilities of adulthood. Their parents’ actions are a shot across the bow of their own lives they are unable to appreciate.

Nancy and Bill are written with more complexity and their calm acceptance and assessment of life’s vicissitudes is a welcome respite from the slapstick, hit-or-miss dirty jokes and gratuitous gay romp scene. Plum’s comedic physicality is understated (the sandwich scene is a knockout) and her verbal timing and intonation are, as always, impeccable. Snee brings a relaxed and easy calm to Richard, letting his softer and more vulnerable side quietly seep through his hardened, gruff exterior.

Snee, Plum

It is through them that Wohl asks the big ticket questions she wants us to consider: What is a “great” marriage? When (if ever) does a couple’s duty to sacrifice their own happiness and stay together for the sake of their kids shift? At what point do parents have a responsibility to treat their children like the adults they are and force them to grow up and stand on their own two feet? Is it ever too late to shift gears and change the course of a life-long marriage?

And, perhaps most important, what exactly is love?

Although the play at times seems to wander in search of its genre, Wohl’s underlying messages, the terrific Plum and Snee and a killer ending to Act I save the day.  For tickets and information, go to: https://gloucesterstage.com/

Written by Bess Wohl; Directed by Robert Walsh; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Anshuman Bhatia; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay. Presented by Gloucester Stage through August 21.

Gloucester Stage Company’s ‘Gloria’ Provocatively Asks, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?”

Cast of Gloucester Stage’s production of “Gloria” by Branden Jacob Jenkins. Photos: Shawn G. Henry

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Gloria’ takes us on a ride inside the rollercoaster that is the essence of a 2010s Manhattan cultural magazine’s editorial assistant bullpen subculture. (Its playwright, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, worked at The New Yorker for three years). These players are unapologetic and clear about their singular goal: to leave their dead end stepping-stone jobs, climb out of the low prestige depths of editorial assistantship and secure a book deal before turning thirty. Each is constantly on the backstabbing prowl in search of that tipping point moment that will catapult them out of their murky office pit.

Reminiscent of the long-running television hit, “The Office,” the first act of ‘Gloria’ is an entertaining mash-up of deadpan humor, smart and provocative language and near slapstick-caliber physicality. The dialogue is full of wit, sarcasm, social commentary and sharp insight, delivered at breakneck speed. Competitive malice is the glue that binds these folks; shredding insults is their common language. No one is happy and no one is to be trusted, from the Harvard intern (Miles) who wears headphones as a decoy to the jaded almost-30 closet memoirist (Dean), the acid-tongued spoiled shopaholic narcissist (Kendra) and the spiritually eviscerated factchecker (Lorin) and over-educated, underpaid receptionist (Ani) .

Yet, in their individual and collective ways, this motley crew of wannabes somehow endears themselves as they bare their fangs, souls and vulnerabilities. They become like family — with all its good, bad and ugliness —and we accept and appreciate the way they unapologetically let it all hang out. Bryn Boice’s thoughtful and affective direction exposes their naked underbellies, yet still elicits our caring and empathy.

Into this mix enters Gloria, a pathetic and classic spinster loner who has dedicated her life to the magazine. An editor, she is the butt of more than one cruel joke and the object of the bullpen’s venomous envy. The night before, she threw herself an extravagant birthday party, complete with DJ and catered food. She invited the entire staff of the magazine; only one editorial assistant showed up, adding salt to an already unhealable wound.

Michael Wood, Ann Dang

The repercussions of this slight go beyond hangovers and lame excuses, but it would be truly criminal to reveal what they are. Suffice it to say that Act I’s ending guarantees that no one is likely to leave during intermission.

Act II shifts gears so dramatically the audience is at risk of whiplash. Eight months later, the same characters are still front and center, but as individuals leading separate lives away from the magazine. All are dealing with the aftermath of a shared trauma that each exploits their own way. Gone is Jacobs-Jenkins’ spicy, electric-paced dialogue, replaced by the dull and relentless thrum of boundless, humorless ambition.

Jacobs-Jenkins does not hide the ball. His message — that we live in an age of exploitation that has no bottom — weighs heavy and depressingly without the fleet-footed wit he brought to his first act, and it’s a weary audience that welcomes the play’s end.

Ann Dang, Theresa Langford, Michael Broadhurst

Despite an uneven script and inconclusive ending, Gloucester Stage’s production is definitely worth seeing. Small touches add a lot. Props such as Asus and Toshiba laptops (remember those?) and a sound track of J. S. Bach: Mass in B minor ground us in the moment. The cast is terrific, and does its best to articulate Act I’s rapid-fire monologues clearly (strong standouts are Michael Wood as Dean and the talented Teresa Langford as Ani; Michael Broadhurst’s meltdown as Lorin gives Peter Finch’s classic “Network” stiff competition). Esme Allen brings an unpretentious ease to Act II’s Nan. And Boice misses no chance to add meaningful touches; under her direction, even changing sets becomes an opportunity for whimsical choreography.

‘Gloria,’ a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2016, raises important issues for this era of continuing confusion and division over what constitutes news and how it should get disseminated. Should writers only create their own stories, or is it okay to co-opt someone else’s? Whose story is a shared event to tell and who decides what the “true” version of that story is? What are the differences between storytelling as catharsis, opportunism and exploitation and does it even matter anymore? Do those lines still exist?

Perhaps Lin-Manuel Miranda summed it up best in his peerless “Hamilton” when he wrote, “You have no control, Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.”

‘Gloria’ — written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Directed by Bryn Boice. Scenic Design by Jeffrey Petersen; Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design by Aja M. Jackson; Sound Design by David Remedios. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main St., Gloucester through June 26.

For more information and tickets, go to: https://gloucesterstage.com/

Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s ‘The Bomb-itty of Errors’ Brings out The Bomb in The Bard

Cast of Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s ‘The Bomb-itty of Errors’

by Shelley A. Sackett

Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “The Bomb-itty of Errors” is perfect pre-summer fare. Hip-hop and rap, a live DJ, a brilliantly exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) script, some sublime acting and — as if that’s not enough — the Bard himself, camouflaged but hardly hidden. All wrapped neatly in a 90-minute intermission-less package that is as invigorating as it is boisterous.

The brainchild of four final-year students at New York’s Tisch School of the Arts, “Bomb-itty” started as a university project in 1998. It was so popular that it received enough support to return to New York the following year for a seven-month run, which in turn led to a lengthy Chicago run.

“Bomb-itty” is true to Shakespeare’s style of rhyming couplets, (sometimes bawdy) humor and historical references. The language often mirrors Shakespeare’s with references to other works sprinkled here and there to stroke the egos of those who recognize them. But the real star of the show is the vibrant, beatbox soundbox and the actors who manage to memorize a super-sized number of lines, which they deliver at break-neck speed.

The result is a theater experience unlike any I’ve experienced. (No, “Bomb-itty” is not a “Hamilton” clone. It’s way more fun.)

Based more than loosely on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” the plot involves two sets of identical twins with identical names, mistaken identities, misfortunes galore and a slew of stereotypes (some more offensive than funny). To get the most out of the rapid fire lines and delivery, either arrive early enough to read the playbill’s summary (twice, at least), or spend some time digesting the on-line Cliff Notes version of the original. Trust me, it is time well spent.

Despite first appearances (the prologue is a gem), “Bomb-itty” adheres closely to Shakespeare’s play.

In the original, a merchant of Syracuse, Egeon, suffered a shipwreck some years ago in which he was separated from his wife, Emilia, from one of his twin sons, later Antipholus of Ephesus, and the son’s slave, Dromio of Ephesus. The other slave’s twin, Dromio of Syracuse and Egeon’s remaining son, Antipholus of Syracuse, remained with Egeon.

When he came of age, Egeon allowed Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave Dromio of Syracuse to go in search of his lost brother. When they didn’t return, Egeon set out after his remaining son, and the play begins as we learn of Egeon’s capture and his condemnation to death by Duke Solinus in the hostile city of Ephesus. The details of Egeon’s story move Solinus to pity, and he grants a reprieve until nightfall, by which time a ransom of a thousand marks must be raised.

Unbeknown to all, the missing Antipholus and Dromio landed in Ephesus after the shipwreck and have thrived there. Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant Dromio are thrown into confusion when, unknown to each other, their twin brothers of the same names arrive in town from Syracuse.

In “Bomb-itty,” the Antipholus and Dromio twins are now quadruplets, put up for adoption after their father, a famous rap MC (Master of Ceremonies), committed suicide. The time is today and Ephesus and Syracuse have been replaced by the US East and West coasts.

Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus visit Syracuse, New York, to take part in an MC competition. In the ensuing mayhem, one Antipholus is called home to a wife he never married, only to fall in love with her sister, Luciana. Meanwhile, the other Antipholus runs afoul of a policeman who enjoys a questionable relationship with his horse.

Four actors play most of the roles. Henry Morehouse as Dromio of Ephesus and Luciana chews up the stage. He has a natural physicality and stellar delivery and is comfortable and confident. He hands-down steals every scene in which he plays Luciana. A recent graduate of Boston University with a BFA in acting, Morehouse is a talent to be watched. His stage presence is spot-on and magnetic.

Likewise, the veteran actor Malik Mitchell brings the same charisma and acting chops to this production that those of us lucky enough to see him in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Once on this Island” have already experienced. His Dr. Pinch, the Rastafarian herbal “doctor,” is a show-stopper.

Anderson Stinson, III is all sinew and smiles in his many roles, shining as Antipholus of Syracuse. DJ Whysham strikes all the right beats and Victoria Omoregie rises to the challenge of her many character and costume changes.

Notwithstanding its gratuitous sexism, misogyny and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric (and a truly baffling and unforgivable antisemitic portrayal of a Jewish jeweler), the play is worth seeing for its high-energy, rowdy fun and for showing us what hip-hop and rap in the right hands can produce: a unique and exciting contemporary art form. If you listen carefully, you can feel the Bard’s ghostly presence, his sandaled toes tapping out the beats. For tickets and more information, go to: https://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/

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MICHAELHOBAN

Cast of Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s ‘The Bomb-itty of Errors’

‘The Bomb-itty of Errors’ — Written by Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano, Gregory J. Qaiyum, Jeffrey Qaiyum and Erik Weiner. Based on ‘The Comedy of Errors’ by William Shakespeare. Directed by Christopher V. Edwards. Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design by Zoe Sundra; Lighting Design by Max Wallace; Props Design by Steve Viera, Sound Design by Abraham Joyner-Meyers. Presented by the Actors’ Shakespeare Projectat the Charlestown working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill St., Chares through June 26.

by Shelley A. Sackett

Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “The Bomb-itty of Errors” is perfect pre-summer fare. Hip-hop and rap, a live DJ, a brilliantly exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) script, some sublime acting and — as if that’s not enough — the Bard himself, camouflaged but hardly hidden. All wrapped neatly in a 90-minute intermission-less package that is as invigorating as it is boisterous.

The brainchild of four final-year students at New York’s Tisch School of the Arts, “Bomb-itty” started as a university project in 1998. It was so popular that it received enough support to return to New York the following year for a seven-month run, which in turn led to a lengthy Chicago run.

“Bomb-itty” is true to Shakespeare’s style of rhyming couplets, (sometimes bawdy) humor and historical references. The language often mirrors Shakespeare’s with references to other works sprinkled here and there to stroke the egos of those who recognize them. But the real star of the show is the vibrant, beatbox soundbox and the actors who manage to memorize a super-sized number of lines, which they deliver at break-neck speed.

The result is a theater experience unlike any I’ve experienced. (No, “Bomb-itty” is not a “Hamilton” clone. It’s way more fun.)

Based more than loosely on Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” the plot involves two sets of identical twins with identical names, mistaken identities, misfortunes galore and a slew of stereotypes (some more offensive than funny). To get the most out of the rapid fire lines and delivery, either arrive early enough to read the playbill’s summary (twice, at least), or spend some time digesting the on-line Cliff Notes version of the original. Trust me, it is time well spent.

Despite first appearances (the prologue is a gem), “Bomb-itty” adheres closely to Shakespeare’s play.

In the original, a merchant of Syracuse, Egeon, suffered a shipwreck some years ago in which he was separated from his wife, Emilia, from one of his twin sons, later Antipholus of Ephesus, and the son’s slave, Dromio of Ephesus. The other slave’s twin, Dromio of Syracuse and Egeon’s remaining son, Antipholus of Syracuse, remained with Egeon.

When he came of age, Egeon allowed Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave Dromio of Syracuse to go in search of his lost brother. When they didn’t return, Egeon set out after his remaining son, and the play begins as we learn of Egeon’s capture and his condemnation to death by Duke Solinus in the hostile city of Ephesus. The details of Egeon’s story move Solinus to pity, and he grants a reprieve until nightfall, by which time a ransom of a thousand marks must be raised.

Unbeknown to all, the missing Antipholus and Dromio landed in Ephesus after the shipwreck and have thrived there. Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant Dromio are thrown into confusion when, unknown to each other, their twin brothers of the same names arrive in town from Syracuse.

In “Bomb-itty,” the Antipholus and Dromio twins are now quadruplets, put up for adoption after their father, a famous rap MC (Master of Ceremonies), committed suicide. The time is today and Ephesus and Syracuse have been replaced by the US East and West coasts.

Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus visit Syracuse, New York, to take part in an MC competition. In the ensuing mayhem, one Antipholus is called home to a wife he never married, only to fall in love with her sister, Luciana. Meanwhile, the other Antipholus runs afoul of a policeman who enjoys a questionable relationship with his horse.

Four actors play most of the roles. Henry Morehouse as Dromio of Ephesus and Luciana chews up the stage. He has a natural physicality and stellar delivery and is comfortable and confident. He hands-down steals every scene in which he plays Luciana. A recent graduate of Boston University with a BFA in acting, Morehouse is a talent to be watched. His stage presence is spot-on and magnetic.

Likewise, the veteran actor Malik Mitchell brings the same charisma and acting chops to this production that those of us lucky enough to see him in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s “Once on this Island” have already experienced. His Dr. Pinch, the Rastafarian herbal “doctor,” is a show-stopper.

Anderson Stinson, III is all sinew and smiles in his many roles, shining as Antipholus of Syracuse. DJ Whysham strikes all the right beats and Victoria Omoregie rises to the challenge of her many character and costume changes.

Notwithstanding its gratuitous sexism, misogyny and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric (and a truly baffling and unforgivable antisemitic portrayal of a Jewish jeweler), the play is worth seeing for its high-energy, rowdy fun and for showing us what hip-hop and rap in the right hands can produce: a unique and exciting contemporary art form. If you listen carefully, you can feel the Bard’s ghostly presence, his sandaled toes tapping out the beats. For tickets and more information, go to: https://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/

‘The Bomb-itty of Errors’ — Written by Jordan Allen-Dutton, Jason Catalano, Gregory J. Qaiyum, Jeffrey Qaiyum and Erik Weiner. Based on ‘The Comedy of Errors’ by William Shakespeare. Directed by Christopher V. Edwards. Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh; Costume Design by Zoe Sundra; Lighting Design by Max Wallace; Props Design by Steve Viera, Sound Design by Abraham Joyner-Meyers. Presented by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project at the Charlestown working Theater, 442 Bunker Hill St., Charles through June 26.

BLO’s ‘Champion: An Opera in Jazz’ Tackles Fate, Faith, Forgiveness and Redemption

by Shelley A. Sackett

Switching gears overnight due to pandemic-related issues, Boston Lyric Opera is to be commended for its recent perseverance and quick-footed adaptability. Instead of offering three performances of “Champion: An Opera in Jazz” as a full opera as rehearsed and planned, the company pivoted to only two concert-style productions with the masked orchestra on stage, costumed chorus in balcony box seats and main performers making do with a sliver downstage.

The only downside to the downsizing was that fewer people were able to experience this ambitious, modern masterwork that brings to life boxer Emile Griffith’s complicated story through a heart-rending melding of music styles and poignant lyrics. By the show’s end — at least in my row — there was not a dry eye. And isn’t that, after all, why we go to the theater and especially to opera? To feel?

The synopsis provided in the playbill is not a spoiler, but an essential guide. The scenes flip from present to past (with the magnificent Brian Major and Markel Reed respectively playing Emile today and during his boxing hey days of the 1960s) and without a roadmap, it’s easy to get lost.

Emile Griffith was not your typical boxer. Born on St. Thomas in the 1950s, he and his many siblings are abandoned by his mother, Emelda. As a youngster, Emile dreams of reuniting with his mother and becoming either a hat maker, a singer or a baseball player. Eventually, he finds her in New York and she introduces him to the hat manufacturer, Howie Albert. But, instead of offering Emile a job making hats, Howie focuses on Emile’s physique and pegs him as a welterweight boxer. He offers to train Emile, and with Emelda’s encouragement (and nose for money), Emile’s artistic dreams fade away.

The trouble is, Emile is gay at a time and in a profession where that is simply not an option. When Benny “Kid” Paret taunts Emile about being a “maricon,” (a Spanish insult for homosexuals) before and during their high-profile match in 1962, it is as if Benny has waved a cape during a bullfight. Emile literally sees red and in seven seconds delivers the 17 blows that will send Benny to the hospital in a coma, where he will die 10 days later.

Emile sits outside Benny’s room those long 10 days, wanting to say he is sorry and begging for forgiveness. His request is denied, and for the rest of his life, that lack of closure will wrack his soul and shake his faith.

Markel Reed, Terrence Chin-Loy and Brian Major from Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “Champion:An Opera in Jazz.”
Courtesy of David Angus, Boston Lyric Opera

Fifty years later, Emile struggles with the chronic traumatic brain injury, the result of “boxer’s brain” and a brutal beating he suffered outside a gay bar. The opera opens as Luis, his caregiver/adopted son/partner, helps dress him, reminding him of a special meeting they are scheduled to attend. Emile’s mind is afloat, uneasily alighting on memories of his fight with Benny and his own beating at the hands of bigots. He is  confused over the smallest action, such as putting on his shoes. He sometimes doesn’t know who or where he is.

Yet during moments of clarity, he remembers his past and the twist of fate that transformed his prized fists into weapons, forever rewriting his legacy from Champion Boxer to murderer.

During these times, he poses some very deep and heart wrenching questions.

“What makes a man a man; the man he is?” Emile wonders. “Who is this man who calls himself me?” Resigned to a life where redemption is beyond his grasp, he accepts his fate, believing he deserves it. “I go where I go,” he explains.

Blanchard’s music keeps the audience riveted and guessing as he winds from the full-throated operatic to slinky, smoky note-bending jazz to a gospel-tinged chorus to a N’awlins style second line. It’s the musical analog to Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations.”

The cast relishes every note. Baritones Major and Reed are nothing short of spectacular as Emile, both as actors and opera singers. Major is a big guy (think Paul Robeson), yet he controls that physicality to appear graceful and vulnerable. Reed is his foil, a compact pretty boy, all sinew and chartreuse satin. And man, can these guys sing.

The rest of the cast are equally noteworthy, from Tichina Vaughn as Emelda to Terrence Chin-Loy as Benny, Jesus Garcia as Luis, Stephanie Blythe as Kathy and Wayne Tigges and Neal Ferreira as Howie and the Ring announcer.

At the end of the day, however, we can’t help but wonder how Emile, in hindsight, might answer this question: was it worth it?

“Champion: An Opera in Jazz.” Music by Terence Blanchard; Libretto by Michael Cristofer. Music Direction by David Angus; Music Conductor – Kwamé Ryan; Set Design by Sara Brown; Costume Design by Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design by Marcus Doshi. Produced by Boston Lyric Opera at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre, 219 Tremont Street, Boston. (Run has ended)

SpeakEasy’s ‘Once on This Island’ Is A Magical Tour of A Mystical Place

Peli Naomi Woods, Kenny Lee, and the cast of SpeakEasy Stage’s Once on This Island (2022). Photos by Nile Scott Studios.

by Shelley A. Sackett

‘Once On This Island’ is such a happy, toe-tapping, brightly colored musical, it’s easy to forget that its overarching tragic themes are Caribbean colonialism, racism, and slavery. Part ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (which didn’t end well for those star-crossed lovers, either), part Little Mermaid and part multi-cultural folk fable, the show explains the history of the Island Hispaniola and its eventual split into Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Yet, the show is not heavy. There is also a contagious high-spirited cheerfulness that amounts to one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of 2022 (and there has been some stiff competition). Erik D. Diaz’s set is eye candy. Pink tiles, a shimmering crescent moon, lush vegetation and outdoor patio dining evoke the laid back magical vibe of island living.

Malik Mitchell, Peli Naomi Woods, Davron S. Monroe, Christina Jones, and Yewande Odetoyinbo

Under the direction of the talented David Freeman Coleman, live calypso music has the audience smiling and seat dancing before the play begins. The cast slowly moseys onto the stage, dressed in bright island finery. They engage and joke with audience members and each other, bantering in clear, easy to eavesdrop patois. The scene is set and the audience is primed.

Then suddenly, the horseshoe shaped stage is on fire, a burst of simultaneous music, song and dance. While there are a dozen individuals who are a “who’s who” of Boston’s finest actors/singers/dancers, in the prologue number, “We Dance,” they are a single, well-oiled ensemble. Voices blend seamlessly in strong, crisp and tuneful harmony. Jazelynn Goudy’s choreography is exciting and even more eye candy. There is so much to absorb sensorially, it’s hard to take it all in.

And that’s before the outstanding Peli Naomi Woods (Ti Moune) explodes onto the stage, commanding its center with confidence and grace while demonstrating her formidable vocal and dancing prowess.

Davron S. Monroe

The overlapping stories of Ti Moun and Haiti (referred to as “the jewel of the Antilles”) unfolds for the next 90 intermission-less minutes as an operetta, (a form of theatrical light opera) that includes spoken dialogue, songs, and dances. Told as a Hans Christian Anderson type of fairy tale fable, we learn about the history of the island and the caste system that divides people according to skin color, origin and wealth. The Beauxhommes, descendants of European colonialists, have the money, the power and the land. The native islanders are poor and stuck in their station. There is no possibility of fraternization, let alone marriage, between the two. Their futures are indelibly tracked.

Still, they all serve the caprices of the local gods, praying to them, fearing them and dancing to their music.

Through Lynn Ahrens (book and lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty’s (music) magnificent libretto, we learn Ti Moun’s story. It all starts with a big storm that left her an orphan. The gods spared her life for a purpose; they chose her for a magical adventure.

She is cared for by Ton-Ton Julian and Mama Euralie and grows up into the magnificent Woods. All is fine until Daniel, son of a wealthy Beauxhomme landowner, catches her eye as he races through her village in a splashy sports car. She becomes convinced they are each other’s destiny. She is determined to find a way for them to be together.

Peli Naomi Woods, Reagan Massó

One day, Daniel crashes his car and Ti Moun finds him. She decides the gods orchestrated this, revealing their plan for her and the reason she survived the storm. She goes into hiding with him, resolved to nurse him back to health. Papa Ge, the Demon of Death, comes to claim him, and Ti Mouns makes a bargain: her life for Daniel’s, payable at Papa Ge’s whim.

Ti Moun believes that love’s force can overcome all, even a bargain with the death god. Like Romeo and Juliet, these two really do love each other but, notwithstanding Ti Moun’s faith, no love is strong enough to overpower social and political mores.

To call “Once on This Island” enjoyable is like saying the Taj Mahal is a nice space. This production sparkles on every level. The musicians are first class. The choreography is inventive and inspired. In one knock-out number, Goudy arms the dancers with silver, shimmering umbrellas. The effect is otherworldly — are they jellyfish? Protective kites? Homage to Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations?” Or are they just there because it’s raining?

It’s hard to know where to begin to give shout outs among the cast. Woods (Ti Moun) is an undergraduate senior at Boston Conservatory at Berklee with a bright future that we hope will remain in Boston — at least for a little while. Anthony Pires, Jr. (Ton-Ton Julian) brings a lithe physicality, knock ‘em dead pipes and an irresistible twinkle in his eye to his role. Christina Jones (Erzulie) possesses a quiet substance and the voice of angel. And Becky Bass  (Steel Pannist and narrator/storyteller) is fresh, nuanced and natural. Her facial expressions and body language are magnetic. Kenny Lee, who plays the pivotal role of Daniel, could use a little more seasoning, but that’s something that additional stage time should cure.

Don’t miss this balm of a show. It is a four course, five star theatrical feast.

Once On This Island.” Book and Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Music by Stephen Flaherty. Directed by Pascale Forestal. Music Direction by David Freeman Coleman; Choreography by Jazelynn Goudy; Scenic Design by Erik D. Diaz; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Lighting Design by Aja M. Jackson; Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will. Presented by Speakeasy Stage, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA through April 16.

For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.speakeasystage.com/

Lyric Stage’s Superb ‘The Book of Will’ Takes Us Back to the Time of the Bard

Cast of ‘The Book of Will’ at Lyric Stage

By Shelley A. Sackett

Ever wonder about the immediate aftermath of Shakespeare’s death, how his plays were preserved in an era when plays were not considered to be important works of literature, plots were largely constructed by the actors and written out in a ‘fair copy’ for their records by the company scribes, and new plays were churned out at an incredibly fast rate to provide the companies with enough material to keep performing new shows all the time?

Well, wonder no more.

The Lyric Stage Company of Boston’s must-see production of ‘The Book of Will’ brings the story of Shakespeare’s legacy, and the women and men devoted to creating and preserving it, to life. Director Courtney O’Connor weaves magic from a smart and inspired script by playwright Lauren Gunderson. For two hours and 15 minutes (with intermission), we willingly time travel back to an era of pubs, plays and camaraderie.

Sound Elizabethan and dull? Not a chance! But first, a little more context.

Playwriting then was a little like writing for a sitcom or a soap opera in the modern day, and once a play was performed, the acting companies would only keep the scripts if they felt they might revive them again down the road. If not, they might sell them off to a publishing house, who would try and make a quick profit on them.

Ed Hoopman, Will McGarrahan, Grace Experience, Joshua Wolf Coleman

By Shakespeare’s time, printing was more common, and book publishing was more of a commercial enterprise. Yet, Shakespeare’s plays were not published all together in his own lifetime. John Heminges, Richard Burbage, and Henry Condell, fellow actors in the Kings Men and devoted friends of the Bard, began collecting the various published versions of Shakespeare’s plays, actors’ scripts, and scribal copies, and edited them together into the First Folio, published in 1623.

The whole project was perhaps an attempt to eulogize Shakespeare and make his work last forever. It’s partly these reasons that allowed his writings to become part of the fabric of English culture and language. His works, which most certainly would have been lost, have been read and circulated endlessly and have had a life of their own, though Shakespeare himself is long dead.

Experience, Sarah Newhouse, Shani Farrell

Janie E. Howland’s set, Elisabetta Polito’s costumes and Elizabeth Cahill’s sound design thrust us immediately into the thick of Stratford-on-Avon between 1619 and 1623. From the get-go, the talent and credibility of the actors is obvious. Particularly noteworthy are Fred Sullivan, Jr. as Ben Jonson and others, Will McGarrahan as Richard Burbage and William Jaggard, and the magnificent Ed Hoopman as Henry Condell. (I could listen to Hoopman recite the phone book.)

If Gunderson has strayed from historical fact, it is in her inclusion of women as prominent players in the project. These women are interesting, compelling, ambitious, funny and, in their own ways, powerful. There is not one weak link among the actors. Grace Experience as Alice Heminges (whom she plays with an Audrey Hepburn elegance), Shani Farrell as Elizabeth Condell, and Sarah Newhouse as Rebecca Heminges each bring their own nuances to their roles.

Lest you think this is a play reserved for Shakespeare nerds, think again. Gunderson has infused the script with humor, poetry, pathos and intrigue — ingredients for entertaining theater — as well as factual history.

Experience, Hoopman, Coleman, Fred Sullivan, Jr.

“Shakespeare doesn’t need much help in being revered. He needs help in being human. That’s the real heart of this story,” Gunderson said in an interview. “It really has to be the emotional reason that these people did this almost impossible thing. It comes down to their loves and friendships that really provide the engine for this effort.”

“The Book of Will.” Written by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland; Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito; Lighting Design by Christopher Brushberg; Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill. Produced by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 140 Clarendon St., Boston through March 27.

For more information and tickets, go to: https://www.lyricstage.com/

GBSC’s ‘Incident’ Is a Pleasant Trip Down Memory Lane

Cast of ‘Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ at Greater Boston Stage

By Shelley A. Sackett

‘Incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help’ will strike a particular chord among those of us whose wallets now hold Medicare and AARP cards. Written by Seattle-based playwright, Katie Forgette, it is a loving trip down her personal memory lane. She was raised Catholic and attended parochial school for 12 years. Her father was a hard working cab driver; her mother had many jobs, in addition to birthing ten children and caring for her own disabled mother.

The family wasn’t poor, but only because her parents sacrificed personal goals and worked as hard as they could to be financially comfortable.

Her play is set in the 1970s, and Shelley Barish has created a believable set that focuses on the main gathering place in the house — the kitchen. Homey, shabby and beloved, the room is full of interesting mementos of that era without feeling cluttered. (I was not alone in noticing that the clock on the set wall told the actual time, a nice touch and a visual clue that the connection between past and present is real and fluid).

Linda O’Shea/Forgette, played by Autumn Blazon-Brown, is our 20-something year old protagonist. She makes clear from the get go that, although she is narrator, she may not be a reliable one. “Memory shifts things,” she says. Telling old stories almost always involves the fallibility of memory. Two people, especially family members, remember the same event differently. She talks about the plasticity of memories, how they change over time and with each recollection to the point where, even when it comes to your own life, you may be considered an unreliable narrator.

She also points out the changes since the 1970s in the ways we communicate. “There was no posting; you lived your life in person,” she says wistfully.

Vin Vega, Barlow Adamson

Nonetheless, she is determined to tell the story of her family from her perspective to the best of her recollection.

And so we meet her mother, Jo (Amy Barker), father, Mike (Barlow Adamson), younger sister, Becky (Vin Vega) and Jo’s sister, Aunt Terri (the always fabulous Maureen Keiller). Over the next hour and 45 minutes (including an intermission), this cast of characters (along with a few hysterical cameos by a neighbor and priest) have one job and one job only — to tell the family story the way Linda remembers it.

Some of the characters are not too happy about their supporting roles. They want a monologue of their own, a chance to step up to the mike and explain their version of things. But Linda maintains control, doling out audience access sparingly and under strict time limits.

Although the plots twists and turns and the script’s clever lines draw easy laughs, the real meat and message lie in the family dynamics. They are a tight knit bunch, glued together by bonds of love, loyalty and compassion and — most importantly — humor. They soldier on, often griping and acting out, but they are actors cast in the same play and, at the end of the day, blood is thicker than anything.

Amy Barker, Autumn Blazon-Brown, Barlow Adamson

We are also treated to local parish customs and the hold the Catholic Church had over more than the religious aspects of their lives. Father Lovett and the infuriatingly patronizing church lady, Betty Heckenbach (both played with superb comic timing by Adamson) are examples of the hypocrisies and cruelty the church doled out with its communion wafers.

All the O’Sheas kowtow under the pressure to conform except Terri, who has known the pains of marital separation and barrenness, and isn’t afraid to call a spade a spade.

The riveting Keillor is her usual scene stealing self. (She was likewise phenomenal as Sherri Rosen-Mason in the SpeakEasy Stage’s 2019 production of ‘Admissions’). Her performance is calculated, physical and impeccably paced. Yet, it doesn’t have that “staged” feel. Rather, she makes Terri the warmest, realest and most 3-dimensional character on the stage.

Maureen Keillor

While Barker brings a warmth and strength to Jo and Adamson is great in his cameo roles, Vega and Blazon-Brown are weak links, delivering their lines in muffled tones at the speed of light. Too many great jokes are quashed and after a certain time, audience frustration sets in and we stop trying to catch every sentence.

Nonetheless, for Keillor’s performance and a feel-good theatrical experience, ‘Incident’ fits the bill. There are some real belly laughs, thought-provoking messages and zinger one-liners in this production. For tickets and information, go to: https://www.greaterbostonstage.org/

Review: MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’ a Delightful Breath of Fresh Air

Karen MacDonald as Erma Bombeck in MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’

by Shelley A. Sackett

Karen MacDonald is nothing short of spectacular in the one-woman show, ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,’ now playing at Merrimack Repertory Theatre through March 13. For 80 intermission-less minutes, she doesn’t just play Erma Bombeck; she IS Erma Bombeck, from her impeccable timing to the subtlest gesture and most delicate modulation. Don’t let this one slip away without seeing it. It is a balm of enormous power during these dark tundra days.

That power comes from Bombeck herself, whose simple, perceptive and — most importantly — funny writings are the backbone of the script. It feels so good to just relax, witness a magnificent performance, and laugh.

Daniel Zimmerman’s scenic design sets a perfect table for this theatrical feast. Complete with shag carpet (mustard and chartreuse), mid-century modern furniture and Hoover upright vacuum cleaner, we are instantly transported back to 1960s suburbia. His backdrop creation of a birds eye drone view of a typical neighborhood is as brilliant as it is effective. The effect is like being in a shadow box or viewing a large 3-D cinematic screen turned on its head.

We first meet Erma in her spotless living room, clad in a belted flowered shirtwaist dress, apron, pearls and heels, enjoying a moment’s peace before she starts ironing, vacuuming and folding laundry. MacDonald establishes rapport with the audience before she even utters a word. Yes, she really IS that good an actor.

By the time Erma utters her first line, she has the audience in the palm of her hand. “How,” she asks half in earnest, half rhetorically, “did I end up in suburbia?”

The rest of the monologue traces Erma’s life, from Bellbrook, Ohio to Cherrywood

Orchards community and motherhood to her spectacular career as columnist, book author and nationally sought speaker. Along the way, we are treated to snippets of Erma’s insightful, playful yet always spot-on humor and advice.

A bright woman straddling a line between domestic bliss and oblivion, Erma was a self-described “willing prisoner.” She had her kids early in life and compares the drudgery and workload of stay-at-home motherhood (the second oldest profession) to prostitution (the first), the difference being that mothers don’t get paid.

“I signed up for this life sentence,” she admits (though without, she notes, the usual possibility of parole for good behavior). At the end of the day, however, she offers a one-size-fits-all piece of advice: “If you can laugh at it, you can live with it.”

She escapes her sadness and emptiness by getting back to her writing, which was interrupted by her new role as housewife. She decides to use humor to tell the truth about her life in a column. After her third (and last) child starts kindergarten, she gets started.

Her success is immediate, her popularity taking off like a rocket into space. She goes from one column in a small, local papers to three columns weekly in a syndication of 900 papers nationwide. Yet she never loses sight or grasp of who she is and what her goals are.

“There was love in every line I wrote,” she says. There is also honesty, wit, laughter and pain. Remarkable for their  absence are anger and resentment.

We learn more about how a chance lecture by Betty Friedan launched Erma on her quest to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. She travelled for two years to garner support, writing her columns while on the road. She never missed one deadline during her entire career.

Towards the end of the play, Erma waxes poetic as she wistfully reflects on her career, cancer and waning years. “I was a stay at home mom,” she says. “The key to my writing is I am ordinary. Most of us are unremarkable.”

Although she never won a Pulitzer Prize, she is proud of her columns’ status as “top billing on the refrigerator.” She is such a good sport about everything, rolling with the punches and still harboring no resentment, regrets or complaints. “My plan was to wear out, not rust out,” she admits. “I wrote for me and the other mothers waiting to be recognized. I valued what everyone else took for granted- good old Mom.”

Her final words of advice on staying upbeat through the trials and tribulations of motherhood? “Seize every moment to make a difference,” she urges. “Who wants to live with regrets? Think of all those women on the Titanic who passed up the dessert tray.”

“Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End.” Written by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel. Directed by Terry Berliner; Scenic Design by Daniel Zimmerman; Costume Design by Teresa Snider; Lighting Design by Joel Shier; Sound Design by Scott Stauffer; Original Music Composed by Brett Marcias. Produced by Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 East Merrimack Street, Lowell, MA through March 13.

For tickets and information, go to: https://mrt.org/

An Interview: Meet the Star and Director of MRT’s ‘Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End’

Karen MacDonald stars as Erma Bombeck in “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End. / Photo: Megpix/Meghan Moore

by Shelley A. Sackett

LOWELL — It may surprise many to learn that Erma Bombeck, the celebrated humorist, was not Jewish. With lines like, “If Life Is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I doing in the Pits?” the big-hearted mother of three had the wit, wisdom, and chutzpah that are hallmarks of a classic Jewish mother. Her nationally syndicated column, “At Wit’s End,” ran in 900 newspapers and championed the undervalued everyday lives of millions of stay-at-home suburban moms, offering them a cathartic lifeline of truth, daring, and laughter. She boosted their spirits by poking fun at herself and her life’s ups and downs in an original, comic voice that was both sassy and satiric.

Born in small-town Bellbrook, Ohio, to a working-class family in 1927, she wrote her first humorous column for her junior high school newspaper and went on to write for the Dayton Herald. She wrote a series of columns while at home with her young children and resumed her writing career in 1965 with biweekly humor columns. Within three weeks of the first articles’ publication, she was picked up for national syndication, appearing three times a week in 36 papers under the title “At Wit’s End.”

By the time of her death in 1969, she had written 15 books and appeared regularly on “Good Morning America.”
As a timely antidote to a bleak January’s cold, snow, and COVID, Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell is serving up a sunny dose of Bombeck’s humor in its one-woman show, “Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End,” from Feb. 24 through March 13.

Boston based actor, director, and teacher Karen MacDonald will bring Erma’s larger than life personality to the stage. She remembers Bombeck as part of her family’s life from a young age. Her mother, a big fan, would laugh out loud as she read the column every morning, often posting her favorites on the refrigerator.

“You couldn’t bother Mom until she finished ‘reading her Erma,’” MacDonald said by email.

In preparation for the role, MacDonald, who loves doing research, read many of her books, a biography, and revisited “The Feminine Mystique,” a book by Betty Friedan that Bombeck credited as her personal wake-up call.

In the course of her research, MacDonald discovered that Bombeck was complex, funny, and an astute observer of ordinary life. She also discovered much to admire: Bombeck’s diligence in writing three columns a week; her deep respect for the work women do; her devotion to her family; and her commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment.

“There is a rich amount of material for an actor to work with,” said MacDonald.

While pointing out that no one could really “play” Erma but Erma herself, “You want to gather as much as you can to bring to life such a fascinating woman, MacDonald said. “Then, you synthesize all that information and, hopefully, come up with your own Erma, true to her and true to yourself.”

Director Terry Berliner is also no stranger to Bombeck’s writing. “Erma Bombeck has always been part of my life. I do not know a world without her. Her stories showed me the importance of perspective, the power of a good story, and the significance of capturing the truth,” she said by email.

Although Bombeck was the epitome of a woman’s voice being heard across America at her time, she was written off by many for that very reason – because she was a woman in a man’s world. Playwright twin sisters Allison and Margaret Engel, who primarily work as reporters, co-wrote “At Wit’s End” to amplify that voice and garner the acclaim they believe she deserves.

“She was the most widely read columnist in the history of the country, yet she never won the Pulitzer Prize and is rarely mentioned in journalism schools,” the Engels said in an interview. “Most likely, her subject matter – families and children – was not considered as important as the thoughts of political pundits. Yet she chronicled a very important transformation in the lives of ordinary women in this country.”

MacDonald hopes the play will be “just the tip of Iceberg Erma” and that audiences will leave with a curiosity to reread her work, to learn more about her life, and to reconsider her place in American humor.

On a more visceral level, she also hopes “folks will find some relief, in these strange days, with laughter. It feels good to laugh.”

The play will be available virtually throughout its run. For access or in-house tickets, visit mrt.org/ERMA. The Merrimack Repertory Theatre, located at 50 East Merrimack St., Lowell, is requiring all guests to show proof of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test and to wear masks at all times in the building. To learn more about the COVID policy, visit mrt.org/covid.